By Albert Samaha
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A year and a half after paying a $25,000 settlement to a male-to-female transgirl, the agency that runs the state's juvenile-detention centers has quietly adopted a host of new rules to accommodate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in its custody.
The new rules, adopted in March by the Office of Children and Family Services, now allow transgender youth to request special housing, wear their hair however they want, be called by their chosen name rather than their legal name, and shower privately. The new guidelines even allow biological males to wear girls' panties and bras if they prefer. The agency has also included transgender kids in its anti-discrimination policy—a first for any New York state agency, according to OCFS spokesman Edward Borges.
The policy shift and new rules—quietly hailed by transgender advocates who say that transkids often get harassed by staff and peers at detention centers—were approved without fanfare or even a press release.
"We were concerned about the Post—what their headline would be, you know? Twisting it and making it sensational," says Mishi Faruqee, the director of youth-justice programs at the Children's Defense Fund and co-chair of the working group that created the guidelines. As the OCSF trains its staff on the new guidelines this month, the agency has continued its strategy of easing into what it admits, for some, is uncomfortable new territory. "There are a lot of staff, especially in upstate facilities, [for whom] this is a whole new world," says Borges.
The policy shift comes after a 2006 lawsuit that received little attention outside the gay media, but that created big waves inside the OCFS.
Alyssa—formerly Andrew—Rodriguez was born male, but identified and dressed as a girl. She had been diagnosed with gender-identity disorder, a common psychiatric diagnosis for transgender people, and has prescribed feminizing hormones at age 12 or 13. Rodriguez was regularly taking the hormones to develop breasts and suppress facial-hair growth when she was arrested and placed in a juvenile-detention facility at age 15. Once in juvie, her hormones were taken away for months at a time, and the staff was directed to call her Andrew. Worse, she was transferred back and forth between the regular boys' facilities and special facilities for the two years she remained in state custody.
In a civil complaint alleging sex and disability discrimination, Rodriguez reported that she developed hot spells, headaches, a more masculine voice, depression, and suicidal thoughts as a result of being abruptly taken off hormones, and was punished simply for insisting that she was female.
Her experience wasn't all that unusual. Although no agency has numbers on how many transgender youth are in custody, the Urban Justice Center estimates that lesbian, gay, and transgender youths constitute between 4 and 10 percent of New York's juvenile-detention population. Advocacy groups say those youths often come out of detention with stories of verbal and even physical harassment.
As part of the 2006 settlement between Rodriguez and the OCFS, the state paid her $25,000 and agreed to change its policies for transkids. However, the original guidelines that came out of those first meetings contained language that was offensive to transgenders, says Faruqee—and even with the imperfect guidelines, there was no training to implement them inside the detention centers.
After Governor Eliot Spitzer appointed Gladys Carrión as the new commissioner of the OCFS last year, the guidelines were revised. The more substantive rules allow transgender youths to request placement at a facility where transkids won't have to share sleeping quarters with anyone else. The policy also allows them to dress and groom themselves however they like. Biological males housed in the boys' facilities are even allowed to use makeup, shave their legs, and wear their hair long.
The new guidelines aim to create better staff interactions with transgender youth—directing staff members not to use terms like "homosexual" or "transvestite," and also to call transgender kids by the name (and pronoun) that they prefer. The rules also direct the OCFS to continue hormone therapy for kids who are already receiving it at the time of admission, at least until a proper evaluation can be given. The agency will now even consider requests from transgender youths to begin hormone therapy while in its custody.